Ron Magill, Goodwill Ambassador and Communications Director at Zoo Miami, wrote this article for the Miami Herald.
“That was exciting, Jim!” Marlin said.
“I’ll never forget it — and I don’t think I’ll ever do that again,” Jim replied after watching himself jump out of a helicopter, without a parachute, on top of a full-grown elk in Wyoming as part of a tagging project.
It was one of many amazing feats accomplished by Jim Fowler during nearly three decades of filming “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
Whether he was grabbing an angry jaguar with nothing more than a rope and a net, or rappelling down a 200-foot cliff and reaching for a full-grown condor from inside a crevasse with one hand while holding onto the rope with another, Jim Fowler defined adventure and a passion for nature that laid the foundation for every wildlife presenter that has followed.
I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, when nature shows were not nearly as common as they are today: There were the occasional National Geographic Specials or showings of “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.”
The only regular wildlife show was “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” every Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m.
As a young boy, I’d sit down in front of an old 12-inch black-and-white television, adjusting the metal coat hanger that was used to replace the broken telescopic antenna. Marlin Perkins, the show’s main host, would open the program in an office setting, dressed in a jacket and tie with his carefully groomed silver hair and pencil-thin mustache. He would then introduce Jim Fowler, who was usually wearing khaki pants with a safari jacket, and they would both refer to an image on the wall that was the lead-in to that episode’s featured adventure.
Whereas Marlin generally did the narration, it seemed as if it was Jim that regularly faced the greatest dangers as they encountered everything from crocodiles to polar bears. And although the sequences were often overly dramatic with campy music more commonly associated with “B” movies, they made an indelible impression on me and countless others while planting a seed that has grown into the love, wonder and respect I have for wildlife today.
During my 36-year career at Zoo Miami, I have been fortunate to work with many celebrities, from Michael Jackson to Sophia Vergara. However, I have never been “star-struck” — except when I was asked to bring some animals to the Miami Beach Convention Center in 1982 to meet Jim Fowler and help him give a presentation on behalf of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
As I walked into the dressing room, I was in awe. A man whom I had idolized on television since I was a toddler and dreamed to emulate was right in front of me! Standing at 6-foot-5-inches with a strong athletic frame (he was offered professional contracts by the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees as a high school baseball star), he had an imposing presence that matched the image he portrayed on television.
And then there was that voice: a booming baritone that demanded your attention and captivated your imagination. My mind raced back to all of those Sunday evenings when I would sit glued to the television, watching those adventures and wondering to myself what it would be like to be him. To be charged by an elephant in Africa, track a tiger in India, or see the breath of a polar bear in the Arctic. Little did I know, that initial meeting would lead to a decades-long friendship that would help mentor me through a career that has allowed me to live those dreams.
Recently, I had the privilege of visiting Jim and his wife of 44 years, Betsey, at their 1,000-acre farm named “Mud Creek Plantation” in Albany, Georgia. The property has been in the family for nearly 100 years, and they still live in the modest house Jim built himself in 1957.
Wearing his trademark khakis and safari jacket, he drove me through the property in an iconic World War II jeep that looks like a prop from an old movie. His farm is dotted with centuries-old oak trees draped in moss surrounding beautiful open fields. It is home to a variety of native wildlife including bobcats, foxes, deer, rabbits and a plethora of birds and reptiles. In addition, Jim still maintains a herd of zebras and eland (a type of large African antelope), as well as a group of emus and ostrich.
His conversation came naturally as he drove among the animals, explaining the differences between “Wild Kingdom” and the nature shows today. He expressed concern that much of today’s programming is sensationalized and, rather than inspiring a wonder about nature, causes viewers to fear it.
“The media is doing a very good job of trying to make animals dangerous. Today, the struggle for ratings is so powerful that the media feels the need to concentrate on gore, and that’s unfortunate,” he laments.
He worries that shows that use words like “deadliest” and “attack” and “monsters” to describe themselves do more to alienate people from nature than to connect them.
“There is a difference between ‘information’ and ‘education,’ ” Jim said. “ ‘Information’ is what you get when you touch a hot stove and the burn instantly hits you. ‘Education’ is knowing how close you can get to that stove before it burns you and making sure you don’t burn yourself again.”
He feels it is important to teach people to properly respect animals, not fear them, so they can learn to appreciate and enjoy them without putting themselves in danger.
Jim credits his success to several things. When he graduated with degrees in zoology and geology from Earlham College in 1952, no one told him what he couldn’t do. He feels that it was easier back then to travel to remote places of the world without facing the dangers that exist today with regard to political instability and terrorism — although he did get shot at once in Zambia by some rebels from what was then Rhodesia.
He also gives a lot credit to Perkins, who had seen Jim make an appearance with a harpy eagle on “The Today Show” in 1961 and asked him if he would like to co-host the pilot for “Wild Kingdom.” It debuted in 1962, and the rest is history.
“Marlin was a classic, old-style zoo director with his coat and tie who had started as a Curator of Reptiles and was very dedicated,” Jim said. “What amazed me about him was that in all of our travels together, I never heard him complain about anything.”
When asked about the popular belief that he did all of the dangerous work while Marlin sat back and narrated, Jim says that was something that was blown out of proportion by Johnny Carson. “Johnny would say that I was the only one Marlin could find who was dumb enough to do all of the things that had to be done,” he said. “The reality was that Marlin did a lot of the hands-on work, but he was 60 years old when we started filming “Wild Kingdom” and I was young and had played football, so it was natural for me to do a lot of the heavy work.”
In all of his years working with animals, Jim has sustained a variety of injuries, including losing the tip of a finger to a crocodile, but there are two instances that really stand out in his mind.
“We were in Northern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] trying to catch a giraffe. The warden of the park was driving the jeep while two Africans were in the back holding a pole with a lasso on it that they would try to get around the giraffe’s neck as we drove alongside it. I was sitting in the passenger’s seat and operating the camera, as I did quite often in those days.
“Just as we were catching up to the running giraffe, the warden drove over an obscured aardvark hole causing the jeep to almost flip while throwing the two guys in the back clear off the vehicle. It also launched the heavy camera I was holding straight up in the air where it then fell on my head knocking me out. There was blood everywhere and the warden thought I had a fractured skull.
“In an effort to tend to my injuries and stop the bleeding, the warden cut all of my hair off and then sprayed my head with [a product that bonds injured skin together]. Though the injuries weren’t as bad as the warden thought, my appearance was terrible for appearing on camera the next day!”
Another incident that stuck out was when Jim was trying to film a nearly 20-foot anaconda in British Guiana. Unfortunately, as Jim was trying to get the snake out of a hole, it struck him and the head was so large that Jim’s entire hand — up to his wrist — was in the snake’s mouth.
“The first thing I had to do was get control of the tail because I knew that the snake would use the tail to wrap around me, and if that happened, I was done for,” he said. “My cameraman was deathly afraid of snakes and wouldn’t come over to help. By the time I was able to secure the tail and make sure that the snake wasn’t able to wrap itself around me, it had swallowed my arm up to my shoulder! It took me using my other hand to actually break teeth and get the snake to open its mouth to finally release me — no thanks to the cameraman!”
In addition to “Wild Kingdom,” Jim made nearly 100 appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Carson that resulted in some hilarious and unforgettable moments.
“Johnny was a quiet, private man” he said. “He was brilliant because he never tried to do something funny with an animal. He would react to the unpredictable without it being contrived.” Over the years, Jim and Johnny became close friends. After Johnny finished doing “The Tonight Show,” Jim and his wife took the Carson family to Africa. It was a trip that Johnny later said changed his life.
Although a knee replacement and the need for another have slowed him down (caused by football injuries in the ’50s and not animal encounters, as most people think), Jim is by no means retired. “I’m just getting started!” he says with an engaging smile and a sparkle in his eye. At 84 years old, his passion for the natural world is as strong as ever. However, rather than wrestle crocodiles or lasso bears, he now dedicates himself to “educating the public on why the natural world is important to human welfare” through lectures he gives around the country.
“The biggest challenge is to affect public attitudes and make people care,” he says. “We humans are the only species that can program ourselves with fantasy and boy have we done a good job! We have to look more towards saving open spaces, wildlife, and wilderness and having real life adventures rather than living in fantasies,” he emphasizes.
Towards the end of the original run of “Wild Kingdom,” Perkins closed the show by saying on behalf of himself and Jim, “Nature as we have experienced it over these years has been a treasure chest of wonders. And if we protect our natural heritage, there will always be memorable moments in the Wild Kingdom.”